Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity

Byung-Chul Han     Recommended by    

In our busy and hurried lives, we are losing the ability to be inactive. Human existence becomes fully absorbed by activity – even leisure, treated as a respite from work, becomes part of the same logic. Intense life today means first of all more performance or more consumption. We have forgotten that it is precisely inactivity, which does not produce anything, that represents an intense and radiant form of life.

For Byung-Chul Han, inactivity constitutes the human. Without moments of pause or hesitation, acting deteriorates into blind action and reaction. When life follows the rule of stimulus–response and need–satisfaction, it atrophies into pure survival: naked biological life. If we lose the ability to be inactive, we begin to resemble machines that simply function. True life begins when concern for survival, for the exigencies of mere life, ends. The ultimate purpose of all human endeavour is inactivity.

In a beautifully crafted ode to the art of being still, Han shows that the current crisis in our society calls for a very different way of life: one based on the vita contemplative. He pleads for bringing our ceaseless activities to a stop and making room for the magic that happens in between. Life receives its radiance only from inactivity.

Byung-Chul Han is the author of more than twenty books including The Burnout Society, Saving Beauty and The Scent of Time.

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